What if you passed a law and no one enforced it?
Police agencies appear to be turning their backs on the “Prohibited Harassment of a Police Officer, Peace Officer or First Responder in Monroe County,” which County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo signed Dec. 2, hours after protestors left a public hearing on the law.
Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary announced Dec. 4 that he has instructed officers to not react – at least in the short term – to the new anti-harassment law.
“After consulting with the City’s Corporation Counsel, I have directed members of the Rochester Police Department to not make any arrests for violation of this law or take any other actions to enforce this law at present due to pending legal review,” Singletary wrote in a news release Dec. 4. “If it is found that the New York State or Federal Courts uphold this Local Law and find it to be valid under State and Federal Constitutions, further guidance will be issued to officers.”
The RPD stance is being reflected by other law enforcement agencies in Monroe County.
“The Chief’s Association agreed when we saw the law for the first time – after it was passed – we would not be enforcing the County of Monroe law,” Gates Police Chief James VanBrederode wrote in response to an email request. “It doesn’t add anything new that is not already covered under New York Penal Law. Unfortunately, this new law has created unwarranted fears that local police will start arresting people for constitutionally protected rights. This is far from the truth. It will be business as usual – we will be enforcing the New York State Penal Law statutes as they apply to interfering with the police.”
The proposal, which critics have dubbed the annoyance law, had drawn controversy since being passed as a matter of urgency by the Republican-led county legislature Nov. 12, a week after Dinolfo lost her re-election bid to Adam Bello and Republicans saw their majority shrink to one. It was passed the same night as the CABLE Act of 2019, which would have limited the powers of the new county executive. That proposal was rescinded, but the anti-harassment bill moved ahead.
“Prohibited Harassment of a Police Officer, Peace Officer or First Responder in Monroe County,” states that a person is subject to a year in jail and/or $5,000 fine if convicted of acting in a manner intended to annoy, alarm or threaten the personal safety of a police officer, peace officer or first responder.
The bill does not define those behaviors. Lawyers and opponents of the bill have said the bill is unconstitutional because it violates First Amendment rights and the vague language is open to abuse.
Some thought that a challenge would come when someone was arrested. If law enforcement agencies don’t apply the law, there is a question of how a challenge could be made.
The Rev. Lewis Stewart, head of United Christian Leadership Ministry, helped organize a rally against the bill prior to the hearing. He is holding a meeting Dec. 5 with members of the legal community. Stewart said he also may have a meeting with legislator Karla Boyce, who helped draft the anti-harassment bill, to discuss the intentions and ramifications of the law.
Greece Police Chief Patrick Phelan wrote that there may be appropriate circumstances for the law to be enforced, “but that the county law does not supersede the Constitution of the United States of America. If the law is enforced, it will not be enforced in such a way as to infringe on a citizen’s constitutional rights. The (First) Amendment right to free speech and peaceful assembly will be respected as well as the citizens right to video record in a public place. We are the protectors of the citizens constitutional rights.”
Monroe County Sherifff Todd Baxter issued a news release saying that no deputies will make an arrest for violation of the Monroe County law. He cited the incident earlier this year on Interstate 390 when members of a fire department and EMS personnel were attacked while responding to an accident. Two suspects were charged under existing laws.
Irondequoit Police Chief Richard Tantalo said he has heard few reports from his officers that would meet the definition of the Monroe County law. “In most instances, whenever this type of situation has occurred, there’s more of a frustration over … getting somebody some mental health resources or additional services.”
He said Irondequoit officers would not enforce the legislation. He said training in deescalation, crisis intervention and deployment of the county’s Forensic Intervention Team to address mental health concerns have helped police avoid potential conflict.
Brighton Police Chief David Catholdi wrote, “This is not a law we need. There are several options officers already have at their discretion in the penal law.”
State penal law allows for criminal charges against a person that subjects any first responder to violent or criminal behavior.
Rochester Police Locust Club President Mike Mazzeo said the bill has several problems, starting with nobody asking police or first responders if they wanted or needed it.
“There already are laws that can be utilized,” he said. “If there are some other changes or tweaking that need to be done, let’s at least explore it and discuss it before implementing it.”
Mazzeo said no one is talking to each other about the issue. “We have people on one side and people on the other now voicing concerns about police abuse. If we’re all in the same room and had communicated, I might have been standing next to Rev. Stewart. We might have been able to influence politicians and not let this thing go forward.”
He said first responders should have been part of the discussion, and now they find themselves in the middle.
Mazzeo also said timing is an issue. The union and city are headed back to court over the Police Accountability Board. “It raises concerns in people and questioning the motivations.”
Mazzeo said officers are seeing more interference with first responders. “You don’t always come in at the right time or understand what is taking place. To interfere could be detrimental to someone who someone is trying to help or protect or whatever the case is.”
Mazzeo said existing laws have been tested for the constitutionality and they should be used first.